ROME—Three years ago, Cardinal Bernard Law was at the center of the church sexual abuse scandal in Boston. Monday, he'll take center stage in the Catholic world.
Law will celebrate Monday's Mass of mourning for the late pope at the renowned St. Peter's Basilica—one of just nine such services being conduct at the Vatican. Being selected is an honor bestowed only on the most influential members of the church's hierarchy.
But to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests—some of the accused worked under Cardinal Law when he ran the Archdiocese of Boston before he resigned over the scandal in 2002—it's a sign that the church has not come to grips with a very dark period in its recent history.
"It's beyond a slap in the face, it's rubbing salt into some very raw wounds," said David Clohessy, national director of a group representing about 5,000 church-sexual abuse victims. "He's the symbol of the scandal. This is a clear sign that the church is not taking its history of sexual abuse seriously, and that it is not at all in touch with the pain in the American church."
Law, 73, will lead one of the special Masses for John Paul II in what is called the novemdiales—the nine-day mourning period. He was picked because of his position as archpriest of the St. Mary Major Basilica. Law received his current post after being recalled to Rome following his resignation as leader of the Boston Diocese.
The church, officially, has made no comment on his selection.
To protest Law's participation in the service, a small group of Law's critics has said it intends to demonstrate outside of St. Peter's Monday.
The Rev. Keith Pecklers, an American priest who teaches at Gregorian University in Rome, defends Law.
"The Vatican sees Cardinal Law as a cardinal in good standing, and moreover, he is a cardinal elector in the conclave and has every right to preach," Pecklers said.
But a Mass in the novemdiales is not simply preaching. Several, and perhaps all, of the American cardinals in Rome now waiting for the April 18 start of the Conclave, the closed-door session where cardinals gather to chose a new pope, will lead Masses in churches around Rome.
But those are minor events compared to the Masses of the novemdiales. Traditionally, those special Masses are seen as giving hints about the direction the Cardinals hope the pope they are about to elect will lead. Cardinal Law will be the only American to lead one of these masses.
The highlight of the novemdiales Mass delivered Saturday afternoon by Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica, was his revelation that the personal touch and prayers of Pope John Paul II five years ago helped Marchisano recover from an operation on his carotid artery that had rendered him nearly speechless because of a medical error. Marchisano celebrated the Mass along with Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's longtime personal assistant.
"Law wasn't a specific choice, he'll lead the Mass because it is a privilege given to the cardinal who holds his job," said Vatican expert and National Catholic Reporter Journalist John L. Allen Jr. "On the other hand, especially during the current period, when the cardinals have imposed a media blackout so there won't be any other public voices, it is a very important Mass."
Allen said the status of Cardinal Law in the church can be best seen in the fact that he holds numerous Vatican congregation and council positions, about as many as anyone in the church, and a sure sign of his influence.
"Nobody here defended his handling of the sex abuse scandal," Allen noted. "But they did note that it should be put in the context of a lifetime of faithful service."
In his book, "All the Pope's Men," Allen notes that the sex scandal in the United States is hardly the first time the church had dealt with the issue. He quotes writings by St. Basil, who lived between 330 and 379 A.D., saying, "A cleric or monk who seduces youths of young boys ... is to be publicly flogged ... For six months he will languish in prison-like confinement ... and he shall never again associate with youths in private conversation nor in counseling them."
Law resigned in 2002 because he had failed to remove, and sometimes merely reassigned, priests accused of sexually abusing children. Several months after returning to Rome he was given the role as archpriest of the Basilica that is called the "most significant monument to Mary in Christendom."
The leaders of two other Basilicas in Rome will conduct the special Masses for the pope. The others will be celebrated by a variety of influential Cardinals from throughout the church, such as Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who is the vicar, or top administrator, for the Diocese of Rome.
Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis, said that while he understands the importance of tradition in the church, he thinks it would have been wise to change it.
"Symbolically at least, this puts Law forth as the most prominent American in the church," he said. "That Law is shameless enough to accept the honor is not surprising to us. But we are very disappointed that other leaders in the American church, or the church worldwide, didn't step forward in protest."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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